Shinto Shrines & Snake Oils

“Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades…sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” ~ Stephen Vincent Benet, from John Brown’s Body


Snake Oil. The phrase, for most of us who watched cheesy Western reruns on Saturday afternoons, immediately conjures up images of shabby swindlers exploiting the naïvely unsuspecting public by peddling fake cures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea,” a characterization that most Americans would not dispute. The OED, however, doesn’t note that the phrase’s genesis is linked inextricably to American flirtations with the Far East.


Makes the FDA not seem so bad….

Snake oil is an expression that, 100 years ago, referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicines. In more modern times it has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, snake oil salesmen are people who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who are themselves a fraud, quack or charlatan. But why?


Coolies and Our Railroads

During the mid-1800s, America was in the midst of a fantastic building project: the Transcontinental Railroad. To support such a massive and dangerous undertaking, and to do it at minimal cost, thousands of Chinese workers were “imported” to the United States where they basically became indentured laborers, responsible for most of the most dangerous, heavy lifting of the rails. About 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882, the vast majority coming from peasant families. In the “New World,” these unskilled Asian laborers came to be known as “Coolies.” See my blog Beauty and Honor Enshrined for another Coolie connection between East and West.


And of course the Chinese brought with them their culture, customs and traditions. Which included various medicines, such as snake oil. Made from the Chinese water snake, the oil actually did help reduce inflammation, and was used primarily to treat joint pain (specifically arthritis and bursitis), from which the Chinese no doubt suffered from their back-breaking daily labors. The Coolies would ingest and or rub the oil on their joints after surviving yet another day toiling across America. And, of course, the Chinese workers began sharing their ointment, used for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years in the far-away Far East, with Americans, many of who marveled at its healing properties.

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Snake Oil/Patent Meds We All Could Use!

Too Good to be True

Too Good to be True

Due to the massive lack of government oversight at the time, there was a massive explosion in “patent medicines” at the same time. Sold by shady traveling salesmen, or advertised in the obscure classifieds of questionable newspapers, such tonics promised often an unbelievable wide range of cures, including chronic pain, headaches, “female complaints” and pretty much anything involving the GI track. Over time, as these “cures” became more and more known as false, they came to be known as “snake oil.”

Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

14725978451_679b92773c_bThe Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples here in Okinawa and Japan have, like most religions, their own versions of snake oil. And, like all other houses of worship in the world, raise a good deal of money from their sale. Now I’m not saying that these talismans are all false or that they don’t offer their sacramental protections or blessings to the buyer. But, like most religiously based claims, little concrete proof of their efficacy can be offered, other than rather subjective spiritually improved prognoses. What is obvious, though, is that the mere promise of help, protection, or just plain good luck leads to their massive popularity here in what is already a highly superstitious culture. And that leads to the “ching-chinging” of cash registers….


For instance, we visit our local Shinto Shrine at Futenma each New Year, and well-attended ritual throughout Japan. Kadomatsu (門松) can be purchased and serve as much more than New Year decorations to the faithful. They are intended to welcome the kami (spirits or gods) of harvest to ensure the coming year’s crops. Other examples of local Shinto Shrine snake oils are described below.



11812222966_3157ccdfc2_bOmikuji (御御籤 or 御神籤) are oracles written on strips of paper, nothing more than a fortune. For the Japanese, their oracles are chosen using the time-honored Chinese method of selecting a fortune-telling stick; for us gaijin (foreigners), we just reach into a box and select one from the thousands found there. These are often found at shrines wrapped around tree branches, a way to either multiply a good fortune, or to leave a bad so it won’t follow you home….


My Omikuji tied at the Shrine

16199643279_80b0af4be5_bOmamori (お守り) are amulets on sale at shrines and temples for particular purposes. And by particular, I mean particular. There are hundreds to be found and purchased, with each Shrine or Temple having a specific focus. For example, there are suction-cup charms designed for car windshield to protect the vehicle’s occupants. Students can purchase trinkets to assist them in studies or test-taking. Businessmen buy trinkets to ensure success and prosperity in the coming year. But the most can be found to support health or fertility!


A Collection of Various Omamori for Sale

Hamaya (破魔矢) is literally an “evil breaking arrow,” sold during the New Year at shrines and kept at home all year to keep evil at bay.

Hamaya For Sale

Hamaya For Sale

16359893076_50ddb00b30_bEma (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which worshippers write their prayers or wishes, which are then left hanging where kami receive – and hopefully act on them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery, and many have the word gan’i (願意, “wish”) written along the side. The ema of today are stand-ins for more traditional offerings to the religious houses of the past, such as animals and food-stuffs. And then there are specific ema which can be purchased, such as for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and for good health.

The Futenma Shrine's Ema

The Futenma Shrine’s Ema


Shinto Sales

Shinto Sales

As you might be able to read from between the lines, I’m not a firm believer or supporter of any one type of organized religion. All are a creation of man, and based on highly suspect scriptures, rooted in no longer relevant tradition and practices. And there is simply no escaping the financial aspect of all these talisman for sale, a seemingly rather transparent notion that the faithful everywhere take for granted. But clearly there is a spiritual dimension to our shared human condition. And in embracing and trying to capture that spiritual quality, I have no issue in partaking of the best of each religion that happens to be at hand.

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

Leaving our Prayers and Wishes in Kyoto

So, yes, we display Kadomatsu for the New Year, and we take great pleasure in getting our Omikuji each year. We purchase various Omamori for help in the coming year, for protection on the roads and to help in insuring our health. We even bought a very nice Hamaya, which remains protectively poised at the threshold of our home, warding off evil on a continual basis. And not only do we collect Ema for their artistic quality, we take great care in crafting our wishes each year so that they will be heard and cared for by the kami.

Brisk Sales!

Brisk Sales!

Because, like for most snake oils of the past, the cure is often times in faith, not whether the ingredients actually work or not. And besides, what is lost other than a few bucks that hopefully are put ultimately to better use? No, there is nothing lost here buying from such sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings, but everything to be gained.


Poison or Placenta? What’s YOUR Choice….

“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.” ~Paracelsus


Luckily, my rat poison was in pill form.

Reading the fine print on some meds I had been prescribed, I come across a term that I find…interesting. “Hey Jody, what is “Porcine Intestinal Mucosa?”

“Pig gut,” comes Jody’s flat reply. Right. That’s where I know that word from. Swine.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

I think I owe Japan an apology. I recently wrote a blog (see Placenta: Prescription or Placebo) that might have dissed, however slight, the role that placenta-based supplements play here in the Far East. Placenta, as in that gross stuff that comes out as the after-birth in us (female) mammals. But seriously, is making a drug out of that organic matter any worse than using, say, beef lung, pig intestines, or RAT POISON?

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison.  No difference!!

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison. No difference!!

Rat poison. I finally get to stop taking the rat poison…more gently referred to as Coumadin…that I’ve been taking for that last 6 months and 10 days. I’m deemed healthy enough to stop my anticoagulation treatment! (see Offshore Okinawa, A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose for some background on my serious illness suffered this summer)

I really hate needles....

Lovenox must be injection. Man I really hate needles….

But that’s only the start. The previous blood thinner — an often used-misnomer for drugs that actually stop your blood from clotting — I, or more honestly mostly my caretaker-extraordinaire beautiful-nurse-wife Jody was shooting into my belly – Lovenox – was made from, no less, the intestines of pigs.


And the IV drip anticoagulant I was given during my hospital stay in June, heparin, is derived from mucosal tissues of slaughtered meat animals, such as porcine (pig) intestines or bovine (cattle) lungs. Nice how the manufacturers decide to use uncommon nomenclature for such unsavory source ingredients. Coincidence? I think not.

It's surprisingly affordable.  Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

It’s surprisingly affordable. Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

Coumadin (a name brand of Warfarin), is an anticoagulant normally used in the prevention of thrombosis, the formation of blood clots in blood vessels. But get this: it was initially introduced in 1948 as a rodent pesticide, and can still be found used for this purpose. Urban legend says that the human medicinal benefit wasn’t recognized until some poor Army sap tried to commit suicide by overdosing on the staff, but whose condition was completely reversed by mere injections of vitamin K. And the only reason I knew to even look this up was a nurse-friend of my wife’s, when she found out I was on the drug, said with a large knowing smile, “Oh, the rat poison!”

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches.  Wait, about that drinking....

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches. Wait, about that drinking….

Warfarin is both odorless and tasteless, and is effective when mixed with food bait because rodents will return to the bait and continue to feed over a period of days until a lethal dose is accumulated. In order for us humans to stay alive while we feed on a handful of pills, we just have to go for weekly blood tests to make sure a “lethal dose is NOT accumulated.”

bear facepalm

So, life comes down to relevance. One animal gives a life so that drugs can be made to save people. One culture develops a fetish for placenta-based products sold, not as the fountain of thick mucuousy-looking-goo which they feature in their commercials, but more as a fountain of youth of sorts. Other medical communities develop life-saving medical drugs, but based on other no-less appetizing parts of other sacrificed animals.

The dichotomy, though, is that relevance is not absolute and is often just two sides of the very same coin. Flipped on one side, a drug kills rodents. But tossing it upside-down and suddenly the same drug, using the exact same biological action, can save humans. Having the coin flipped the right way in my case, I sure am glad to be returned to better health.

May or may not be about Placenta (I'm rusty on reading Japanese), but it's the same idea.  I think.

May or may not be about Placenta (I’m rusty on reading Japanese), but it’s the same idea. I think.

And I’m glad to give Japan a respectful break about their placenta fetish. There actually might really be something to it….

Placenta: Prescription or Placebo?

“Thin people and fat people are the difference.”  ~ loose (machine) translation of a Facebook advertisement for Fasty Placenta

Fasty Placenta - not anything like a delicious chilled bottle of wine!

Fasty Placenta – not anything like a delicious chilled bottle of wine!

This one is hard to…uhmm…swallow:  Japanese women (and a few men, I guess) ingesting placenta to stay blemish-free and thin!

At first when seeing the commercials on our Japanese satellite TV channels months ago, I thought surely that using the word to product name containing “Placenta” was a way to differentiate and market yet another vitamin/dietary supplement, which it appears from the frequency of such commercials that the Japanese adore (and buy) on a scale I could have never imagined.


But real placenta?  Like in tissue from animals…or humans??  Sounds horrific, and let me assure you, the goo they show on TV that actually goes in the capsules being peddled, looks equally as bad.  So, it appears I may have stumbled onto the mystery of how here in the Far East, sexy young-looking women still wearing their high school sailor-girl uniforms are actually in their 40s and 50s, due to the magical life-sustaining power of pig, horse, or lamb placenta.

Placenta to the rescue!

Placenta to the rescue!

Actually, when you stop and think about it, consuming placenta, no matter from what type of mammal, is more akin to one of the horror movies where zombies roam the countryside hand out-stretched, moaning away for brains.  Or, maybe to be more culturally current and hip, conjure up an image of vampires in their tormented and undying search and constant consumption of warm, thick blood.

Maybe it can give you blue eyes as well....

Maybe it can give you blue eyes as well….

Think I’m kidding about placenta?

I’m not.  Placenta, human and animal, has been used traditional Chinese and other Asian traditional medicines for thousands of years, usually to treat infertility, impotence, or as a dietary supplement for certain wasting diseases.  Like the longevity of booze and smokes (used in moderation), we probably shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a millennia of culturally medical knowledge; if a behavior has survived that long as part of the human condition, there is probably something beneficial to it.  Oh, and many animals do eat their placentas after giving birth.  But, as we homosapiens are generally more well-fed (and easier grossed-out) than our animal brethren, the animalistic example and reasoning of eating “after birth” (pun intended) doesn’t really apply.

I would've used GREEN apples, you know, to avoid any resemblance to blood

I would’ve used GREEN apples, you know, to avoid any resemblance to blood

Here in Japan many companies (Check out the FB page for Fasty Placenta!) are hawking a plethora of porcine (pig) placenta products, varying from jellies, to facial skin masks, to soaps, to easy-to-swallow capsules, to what I can only assume are less easy-to-swallow drinks.  Most of the claims are for weight loss and general health (for the ingested formats), and for younger, more beautifully radiant babyish skin (for the soaps and topical treatments).  There actually is some casual evidence that the hormones contained in placenta tissue can help treat postpartum depression and menopause.  Men would certainly pause (there’s a pun there too) if they knew their wives were consuming placenta!

Eating it probably shouldn't be one of them.  Neither should making a creepy stuffed bear....

Eating it probably shouldn’t be one of them. Neither should making a creepy stuffed bear….

Nihon-Sofuken offers a full array of placenta products.  What’s impressive about most of the placenta prerogatives are the numbers associated with just how much “ingredient” one derives from a dose.  Claims of 100,000, 270,000, or even 300,000 milligrams abound, which sounds impressive…as an advertising ploy.  Converting to grams, though, and the numbers come way down into the 10’s of grams, equivalent to an ounce or less.  Think of it as a shot and knock it on back.  A beer chaser is highly encouraged.

Wow 270,000 is a big, impressive number!  Too bad it's placenta.

Wow 270,000 is a big, impressive number! Too bad it’s placenta.

Why?  Because although one of the selling points online translates to something like “completely remove blood which cause bad smell and rot via a special extraction method,” you know that it just can’t be appetizing!  Although one company touts that they “erase the high-density animal smell of the pig placenta (it does not smell like ham, bacon, or pork chops!) with a peach or apple flavor,” I’d still much rather have it taste like bacon.  Bacon goes with everything!

A martini glass of horse placenta extract?

A martini glass of horse placenta extract?

In spite of the Japanese claims, I can find no real peer-reviewed and published results showing any health benefit efficacy, and in the West, such claims and treatments are best considered pseudo-science.  I have read that even here in Japan there is enough concern about adverse effects from placenta tissue that some of the more invasive treatments preclude people from donating blood as an additional safeguard to help prevent transmission of pathogens.

As a Domestic Engineer, I draw the line at cannibalism.

As a Domestic Engineer, I draw the line at cannibalism.

But of course it’s not just a Far East Fad.  Check out this placenta cookbook…available on Amazon, in English.  I’m not kidding.  At least in this form the tissue is cooked, and apparently, served with stewed vegetables…but it’s 100% human.  The FDA in the United States maintains that placenta extract may be potentially hazardous and its use is subject to restrictions and requirements of warnings.

No matter.  It appears that people ‘round the world will do – and eat most anything to remain youthful and trim.

Thank goodness no bad smell!

Thank goodness no bad smell!

How far are YOU willing to go??